Vast Wilderness Shaped By Grazing And Fire: Offers Delight & Disaster
The green grass and wet winter tricked me.
On two January 2019 visits to the Mazatzal Wilderness, I was delighted by carpets of green on the mesas, pools and streams, and early spring flowers—results of a rainy late fall and winter in usually parched Arizona.
But the April 2019 visit offered the dark side of climate change and disturbance. That early winter “grass” probably was mostly non-native (and likely invasive), now mature seed heads that stuck to anything, requiring frequent stops to rid boots and socks of thorny seed heads. It often hid cairns (stone piles marking a trail).
Streams had dried up; no pools in the sandy drainages. Unseasonably cool became unseasonably hot: with 100-degrees in Phoenix, we suffered sun-blistering 90-degrees on rocky wastes of the western Mazatzals. Cooler nights brought onslaught of whirring moths attacking headlamps—maybe from all the vegetation.
Halfway into the trip we ran into serious trouble. Out of water and miles short of the only spring shown on the map. We lost the trail climbing up the ridges and followed GPS route. Sucking on prickly pear pulp did not help the thirst problem much. Weak and faint, I lay down in the shade of a mesquite tree while David dropped into yet one more drainage in hopes of finding a pool.
Perhaps this would be an untimely end to our quest to explore Arizona’s oldest, largest and hardly known national forest wilderness only 60 miles northeast of Phoenix.
Marking the western skyline on Highway 87 from Mesa to Payson, the Mazatzals (possibly Aztec word for “place of the deer”) are rugged purple peaks, deep red rock canyons and rolling desert range country climbing from the Verde to the 7000-foot divide. Vegetation includes Sonoran Desert shrub, semidesert grasslands, mountain shrubs, pinion-juniper woodlands, and ponderosa pine and Douglas fir—much burned off with remnants in canyons and basins.
Mazatzal Wilderness: this post features 5 visits between 2016 and 2019 in spring/winter months. Each visit was from a different trailhead and ranged from 5 to 8 days. Visits were initially planned to observe changes in area from previous 1970s to 1990s hikes after fires, but project evolved into hiking most of the wilderness trails in range country.
The 2004 Willow Fire (and some subsequent fire) has greatly changed the wilderness, killing most large conifers, stimulating new vegetative undergrowth, and causing erosion; factors that continue to impact trails and create difficult hiking in many areas.
Mazatzal is largest and oldest national forest wilderness in Arizona—classified Primitive Area in 1938 and named wilderness in 1964. The 250,000-acre wilderness has 240 miles of trails, many from earlier ranching era, now deteriorating along with historic corrals, spring developments, and fences. We only saw cattle or signs of grazing on north and south ends.
Mazatzal rivals the nearby and heavily visited Superstition Wilderness for desert beauty and rugged canyons with riparian oasis. However, solitude abounds except where the Arizona Trail (AZT) traverses wilderness along the Mazatzal Divide.
Trails are mostly poor since our visits decades earlier, except for AZT and a few eastside access trails. GPS and advanced route-finding skills are needed to follow faint trails that fade and reappear. This wilderness exemplifies what we call “solitude-trails-inverse”—solitude is high where trails poor and low where trails good.
Visits totaled 29 days to hike 263 miles at 1.7 mph, with elevation change of 400 feet per mile.
See map below for detailed routes, mileages, elevation changes, water sources, campsites, trailhead locations and photos for each of the 5 visits.
Between us, David and I have visited the Mazatzals 12 times—4 before fires removed most of the large conifers and launched erosion cycles that continue to deteriorate trails.
After a memorable day hike during my student era, our first trips were short visits over Christmas breaks while visiting family in the Southwest from other places we lived. In 2016 we returned permanently to the West and since we live part time in Phoenix during winters, started visiting the nearby Mazatzals. This is a brief chronology of our visits, the two fires that drastically changed the area and hiking conditions, and a longer description of our last visit. Our latest five trips 2017-2019 are shown in detail on map with routes, photos, campsites and water sources.
In April 1977 I did a 20-mile day loop from east side on cool piney trails, meeting many other hikers escaping Phoenix heat. In December 1980, David and I looped north on range trails west of Mazatzal Divide, then up to The Park (an open meadow amidst towering pines) and back on the divide in a snowstorm. Trails were rough but passable. In April 1981, we headed out on Saddle Ridge (now the Arizona Trail), crossed East Fork Verde, up to The Park and back. In October 1992, we did a loop on Mazatzal Divide from the eastside.
In June 2004 the lightning started Willow Fire burned 119,500 acres, came within two miles of Payson, threatened power lines, and temporarily closed Highway 87.
All hikes since have been impacted. In June 2011 we tried to repeat my 1977 day hike but were hampered by eroded trails, heavy brush, and washed out drainages. We saw no one else on hot “moonscape” on top with a few remnant trees. In May 2012 the Sunflower Fire started by a camper firing an incendiary round burned 17,000 acres on south end and into the old burn. Our 2016 one-way hike via Deer Creek (off Highway 87), AZT and City Creek trails encountered much fire damage. A newly cairned and brushed path on creek to the wilderness boundary, but then washouts, drop-offs, thick vegetation and poorly placed cairns took extra day to navigate. Even the AZT was brushy and washed out in sections.
Recent trips (shown on map below) explored the vast network of westside trails developed and maintained in an earlier grazing era. First westside hike was David’s 2017 solo attempt to repeat our 1980 loop after a wet year with spring boxes brimming, creeks running, and walls of flowers; although trails were severely damaged by fire and lack of maintenance. The Upper Willow Trail to The Park was virtually nonexistent under down logs and brush. We lost the 2017 GPS track and Cindy missed trip because of broken hand, so we did it again in much dryer 2018. We met the only hikers we ever saw in this area: two preseason hunters camped a couple miles beyond Squaw Flat. (We also did a brief “consolation trip” for Cindy in April 2017: short loop from City Creek trailhead to LF Ranch on East Fork Verde, day hiked north on AZT and looped back via AZT and City Creek.)
Our two January 2019 loop trips from the Verde River (from Horseshoe Reservoir and historic Sheep Bridge) passed through rangeland mostly recovered from fire. Ranching history was evident in old fences and structures such as Club Cabin ruins. Trips were enhanced by abundant water, lush grass, and early spring flowers from wet winter.
The April 2019 loop was a much different experience. After a reasonable, if rocky, descent from Twin Butte Trailhead near Strawberry to the Verde on old road, we found ourselves off trail as much as on from the river until we met the AZT four days later (a day later than planned). We couldn’t find trail cairns in high grass and had to follow GPS track (based on USGS topographic maps which often deviated from actual trail.) Other than first creek just before the Verde, all tributaries were dry; we had to drop to the river for water. It was also hot.
After riparian mazes on the Verde and burr-laden grass on Highwater trail, the worst trip segment was the obscure Wet Bottom Trail winding up ridges. A sign said, “Bull Spring 8 miles” (but we went 12 miles according to GPS). Large cairns marked trail at first; but we lost it in the first flat. GPS eventually took an old cairned route that was slow going on thin tread with steep up and downs. Near day’s end, we were still miles from Bull Spring and out of water—a surprise after previous wet hikes. David cut off prickly pear cactus pods, peeled and clipped thorns (with trail-clearing clippers) so we could suck on pulp. This left a sweet taste in the mouth and did not cure dryness. (We later learned prickly pear has fewer harmful acids and alkaloids than most cactus, not a bad choice).
I rested while David went down the trail a quarter mile to the next intermittent stream, a tributary to Canyon Creek (the lower end was dry when we crossed it two days before). About an hour later he came back with two full water bottles. Revived, I followed him down to the drainage and two beautiful pools.
We camped on far side of canyon in waist high grass. The next day we mostly followed cairns up a rocky ridge along multiple cow trails (first sign of cattle we had seen), past trampled mud around a stock tank and into a badly burned drainage. We bushwhacked up the far side through manzanita—and met old road into heavily burned Bull Canyon. Bull Trap Spring flowed below an old ranch “line shack” in big oaks spared from the burn; Bull Spring box on up the trail was full. The road clawed up out of the canyon, mellowed around side canyons and then gained a brushy ridge where we viewed AZT descending from the high divide in lazy switchbacks. No more trail finding. Next day we made the long climb from East Verde to our vehicle on hot and rocky Saddle Ridge (AZT)—a trail we first hiked in 1981 (I don’t think I cared for it then, either). But we had ample water, first from the East Verde and then from a long cool-off stop at White Rock Spring. For the first time in three years hiking the Mazatzals, we had the AZT all to ourselves. No thru-hikers. Perhaps too sensible to hike in late April.
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)